An urban myth

Curriculum overview

The Australian Curriculum: Geography content description addressed in the illustration is:

  • The differences in urban concentration and urban settlement patterns between Australia and the United States of America, and their causes and consequences (ACHGK055)

Source: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA)

Learning goals

In this illustration, we focus on the question of why so many Australians live in so few cities. There is an introductory investigation of world patterns of population and urban concentrations which contextualises Australia as a highly urbanised country. It then accounts for this distribution before undertaking a comparative study of the population distributions of Australia and the USA.

The illustration-specific learning goals are:

  • defining the terms 'urban' and 'rural' 
  • identifying the pattern of urban distribution in Australia
  • analysing factors to explain the distribution of Australia's cities
  • comparing the pattern of Australian cities with cities in the USA
  • developing skills in using geographic data to produce an overlay map.

Geographical understanding and context

While the uneven distribution of world population and cities is addressed in this illustration, the principal focus is on the urban concentration of the Australian population. 

The stereotypical Australian is often portrayed as male from the Australian outback. In fact, almost 70% of all Australians live in major urban centres in the east and south of the continent. Factors such as the historical development of cities, as well as environmental and economic factors, have all contributed to this distinctive feature of Australian geography. This unit provides an opportunity to compare the distribution of cities in Australia with those of the USA.

Teaching approaches

1. Introducing the concept of population diversity

Begin this activity by highlighting the uneven nature of the world's population using the World population density map (PDF, 208 KB) provided. Note that factors affecting the density of population include landform, climate and a range of human factors. Point out that that there are concentrations of people in economically-productive regions and where climate and physical features are favourable. 

This uneven pattern could also be illustrated with maps sourced from a classroom atlas, the PopulationLabs website, or NASA's Earth's city lights satellite image. A world map showing Percentage of urban population and agglomerations by size class, 2011 would also be useful at this point. Students might like to source their own map of world population density and urban-related patterns using the Internet.

2. Looking at population distribution

After this global perspective, the focus of this illustration now turns to Australian cities.

As illustrated by the Australia movie poster (PDF, 349 KB), the stereotypical Australian is often portrayed as the casual outdoor type. Statistically, however, almost 70% of Australians live in major urban centres.

Define 'urban' and 'rural' using the relevant Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definitions. Discuss the concepts of urban and rural with your students. Lifestyle related images typical of urban centres and rural regions could be used to enhance this discussion.

Refer your students to a population density map of Australia in an atlas, or use the ABS website's population density map. The patterns of population density and distribution should be identified and described.

3. Examining causes

The reasons (factors) for the pattern of Australia's population distribution can now be investigated. These include: 

  • settlement by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • climate (particularly the uneven rainfall and lack of reliable rainfall in more than 75% of the continent)
  • landforms which limited the spread of farming. 

The Tracing overlay task (PDF, 308 KB) will help students develop their mapping and analytical skills, and to develop an understanding of these factors affecting the distribution of people in Australia. 

4. Comparing countries

A comparison of the patterns of population in the USA with those observed in Australia is now possible. Using maps of USA population density, average precipitation and a physical geography map students can complete another set of tracing overlay maps and compare the patterns with their maps of Australia. 

5. Extension activity

Students can undertake a research task based on the question 'Why do people choose to live in urban or rural areas?'

They can:

  • conduct an interview with someone who lives in a region different to their own (either urban or rural)
  • prepare specific questions
  • report their findings in a table that compares and contrasts the two regions, and develop a written commentary on the differences.

What you need

Students will need an atlas, tracing paper, mapping equipment (drawing pencil, coloured pencils, fineliner).

Access to the Internet would be an advantage but not essential.

Classroom atlases are also particularly useful. 

Australia movie poster (PDF, 349 KB). 

Tracing overlay task (PDF, 308 KB).

World population density map (PDF, 208 KB).


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definitions. Definitions of urban and rural are provided. Retrieved October 2012, from:

Average precipitation. A map showing the average rainfall distribution across the USA over the period 1971-2000.

Earth's city lights This satellite image shows the earths city lights from space. There is also a link that shows how NASA scientists use city light data to map urbanization

Images of maps of Australia. Images of many different types and styles of maps of Australia.

Maps of Australia. A Geoscience Australia website that includes a variety of types of maps of Australia.

Percentage of urban population and agglomerations by size class, 2011. Provides images and maps to illustrate world population density in 2011.

Physical geography map. A variety of map images of the USA.

Population density map. An Australian Bureau of Statistics' map showing Australia's population density in June 2012 is shown in addition to detailed information. 

PopulationLabs. Provides images and maps to illustrate world population density

USA population density. From the Learn NC website, this is an image of the USA population density in 2000 using colour coding to designate population size.

Time allocation: This illustration could be completed in 4 x 50 minute lessons. 

Curriculum connections

This illustration links with the content descriptions of the following Phase 1 Australian Curriculum.


  • Plan, rehearse and deliver presentations, selecting and sequencing appropriate content, including multimodal elements, to reflect a diversity of viewpoints (ACELY1731)
  • Use a range of software, including word processing programs, to create, edit and publish texts imaginatively (ACELY1738)

Source: Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).



Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Australian Curriculum: Geography. Retrieved May 2013, from:

Australian Government. Department of Infrastructure and Transport has useful material on the future of Australian cities. Retrieved October 2012, from:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics website is informative. Retrieved October 2012, from: It also has a specific section on 'population'. Retrieved October 2012, from:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics' Year Book Australia 2012 has useful data and analysis. Retrieved October 2012, from:

All other required resources are listed in the 'What you need' section above.